30 March, 2008

Fresh Tibet unrest as Olympic torch nears Beijing

A melee in Tibet's capital appeared to have been sparked by attempts by police to carry out security checks, indicating the tension and volatility remaining in Lhasa weeks after an anti-government riot.

A mobile phone text message to Lhasa residents from the local police said security checks carried out on Saturday had "frightened citizens" and caused panic in the city centre.

"Please obey the law and please follow the rules, don't create rumors, don't believe rumors, don't spread rumors," read the text message, which was reprinted by the Free Tibet Campaign and International Campaign for Tibet.

"Severely battle any creation or any spreading of rumors that would upset or frighten people or cause social disorder or illegal criminal behavior that could damage social stability," the message read.

"Although full details could not be confirmed, reliable reports indicated that a new protest occurred involving many Tibetans, possibly linked to an attempt by armed police to detain Tibetans ... in central Lhasa," the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet said in a statement.

The fresh tensions come as China prepares to receive the Olympic flame in its capital Beijing on Monday, for the start of a domestic and international relay that the government hoped would symbolize national unity ahead of the August Games.

Instead, China finds itself deflecting criticism over its policies in Tibet and its response to unrest there, and facing the prospect of weeks of protests as the Olympic flame circles the globe.

The unrest began with days of peaceful, monk-led protests in Lhasa that spiraled into a citywide riot on March 14 that the government says killed 18 civilians and was masterminded by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule, denies he is behind the unrest, which his representatives say has claimed some 140 lives.

The protests also spread to ethnic Tibetan areas of China.

Eight pro-Tibetan demonstrators have been arrested in Greece on charges of attempting to disrupt the official flame-lighting ceremony which marks the start of the torch relay that leads up to the Beijing Olympics.

Two protestors breached a cordon of about 1,000 police officers at Ancient Olympia to display a flag demanding a boycott of the Olympics amid mounting controversy over China's crackdown in Tibet.

The men, believed to be associated with the French human rights group Reporters Without Borders, ran up behind Liu Qi, the head of the Beijing Olympic organising committee, as he spoke before the flame was lit.

One man unfurled a black flag portraying the Olympic rings made from handcuffs. Another tried to grab the microphone from Mr Liu and shouted "freedom, freedom".

Meanwhile Malaysia believes the Beijing Olympics should not be politicised and remains confident it will be successfully held in August.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim said Malaysia was also pleased to note that the Chinese government was able to maintain stability and protect the lives of innocent people in Tibet.

"We are relieved to learn that the situation there is returning back to normal," he said in a statement here Saturday.

The Tibetan protesters, mostly monks and nuns, began their march early this month on the anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959, which led to the exile of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader.

The march is one of several international protests related to Chinese rule in Tibet that are under way before the Summer Olympics in Beijing in August.

Rais said the country believed the Chinese government would undertake action which was in the best interest of its people to ensure safety, security and territorial integrity.

"We also welcome the offer by the Chinese government to talk with the Dalai Lama," he said.

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